Many drivers are ready for the arrival of self-driving cars, which will cut down on the frustration and annoyance of having to constantly pay attention in traffic or on long road trips, among other benefits. But while we all know a truly autonomous car could be a decade or more from arriving in dealerships, you might be surprised to discover just how many autonomous features are available right now — including some in your own car. If you’re looking to maximize the autonomous capabilities of your next vehicle, make sure it has some (or all) of the features on our list.
Adaptive Cruise Control
Probably the most common feature on our list, adaptive cruise control has been available on some vehicles, in varying forms, for over a decade. Improving upon the first autonomous driving feature ever (cruise control), adaptive cruise control can adjust your vehicle’s speed based on the speed of cars on the road in front you. In many cases, it can even set and maintain a desired following distance. And while some adaptive cruise control systems require vehicles to be traveling at a certain speed before they’ll kick in, the best systems can bring a car to a complete stop and get it started again once traffic in front begins moving.
Automatic Forward-Collision Braking
Automatic forward-collision braking is perhaps the most rapidly proliferating feature on our list. While it was considered a novel (and unusual) feature just a decade ago, it’s now offered in an enormous range of cars, including some compact and subcompact models with highly affordable price tags. So, how does it work? Although systems vary from automaker to automaker, most forward-collision braking systems detect an imminent frontal collision, alert the driver to the possible accident ahead and quickly apply the brakes in order to ensure the car stops in time. Don’t be fooled by forward-collision "warning" systems: Drivers who want the most autonomous technology possible will want a system that automatically applies the brakes.
Automatic parking is the latest exciting self-driving feature to find its way into a wide range of vehicles. Like other technologies on this list, the actual workings of automatic parking systems vary from model to model and automaker to automaker, but the general gist is that these systems can decide whether a vehicle is large enough to fit in a certain parking spot and then automatically steer the car into the spot. While some versions only control the steering and require drivers to work the brake and gas pedals, other systems do it all for you — and some even work in perpendicular parking spots, in addition to parallel ones.
Tesla’s Autopilot system is possibly the most advanced autonomous system on the market today. While many automakers are focusing on making sure vehicles remain in their lanes (lane-keep assist), avoid collisions (forward-collision braking) or slow down and speed up based on traffic (adaptive cruise control), Tesla has put together every piece of the puzzle in the best and most useful way possible. The result is near-full autonomous driving — though the system won’t work in some conditions, and Tesla reminds drivers to always keep their hands on the wheel. Still, Tesla’s Autopilot system is as close to autonomous driving as you’re going to get for the time being.
More and more automakers are rolling out lane-keep assist, a new feature that builds on lane-departure warning systems in older models. While lane-departure warning would sound an alert or flash a light to let you know you’re drifting from your lane (if you’re distracted, for example), lane-keep assist will automatically steer you back into your lane should you start to drift out. While there are a few limitations to lane-keep assist systems — they won’t work if lane lines aren’t easily visible, for example — the technology is an excellent example of increasing autonomous technology in modern vehicles.
If you don’t know about road-sign recognition, you might be surprised to learn it exists — but it’s available and surprisingly helpful. Road-sign recognition is a tool that automatically views signs on the side of the road and relays that information to the driver. Have you ever wondered what the speed limit is as you drive down the road? A car with a good sign-recognition tool will automatically capture the speed limit and display it for you, so you never have to wonder again.
Several high-end luxury cars — like the BMW 7 Series, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the Volvo S90 — offer full steering-assist systems in addition to more common autonomous technologies like lane-keep assist and adaptive cruise control. While steering-assist systems from these more traditional luxury brands aren’t as comprehensive as Tesla’s Autopilot system, and they usually only last a few seconds or a minute before handing control back to the driver, the idea is similar: The car uses all of its sensors and cameras to steer for itself for a certain period of time. While this feature is currently only offered on top-level luxury cars, we suspect it’ll trickle down to lesser models in the next few years.